Adopted by the 69th WMA General Assembly, Reykjavik, Iceland, October 2018
- Medical tourism is an expanding phenomenon, although to date it has no agreed upon definition and, as a result, practices and protocols in different countries can vary substantially. For purposes of this statement, medical tourism is defined as a situation where patients travel voluntarily across international borders to receive medical treatment, most often at their own cost. Treatments span a range of medical services, and commonly include: dental care, cosmetic surgery, elective surgery, and fertility treatment (OECD, 2011).
- This statement does not cover cases where a national health care system or treating hospital sends a patient abroad to receive treatment at its own cost or where, as in the European Union, patients are allowed to seek care in another EU Member State according to legally defined criteria, and their home health system bears the costs. Also not covered is a situation in which people are in a foreign country when they become ill and need medical care.
- If not regulated appropriately, medical tourism may have medico-legal and ethical ramifications and negative implications, including but not limited to: internal brain drain, establishment of a two-tiered health system, and the spread of antimicrobial resistance. Therefore, it is imperative that there are clear rules and regulation to govern this growing phenomenon.
- Medical tourism is an emerging global industry, with health service providers in many countries competing for foreign patients, whose treatment represents a significant potential source of income. The awareness of health as a potential economic benefit and the willingness to invest in it rise with the economic welfare of countries, and billions of dollars are invested each year in medical tourism all over the world. The key stakeholders within this industry include patients, brokers, governments, health care providers, insurance providers, and travel agencies. The proliferation of medical tourism websites and related content raise concerns about unregulated and inaccurate on-line health information.
- A medical tourist is in a more fragile and vulnerable situation than that of a patient in his or her home country. Therefore, extra sensitivity on the part of caretakers is needed at every stage of treatment and throughout the patient’s care, including linguistic and cultural accommodation wherever possible. When medical treatment is sought abroad, the normal continuum of care may be interrupted and additional precautions should therefore be taken.
- Medical tourism bears many ethical implications that should be considered by all stakeholders. Medical tourists receive care in both state-funded and private medical institutions and regulations must be in place in both scenarios. These recommendations are addressed primarily to physicians. The WMA encourages others who are involved in medical tourism to adopt these principles.
- The WMA emphasises the importance of developing health care systems in each country in order to prevent excessive medical tourism resulting from limited treatment options in a patient´s home country. Financial incentives to travel outside a patient’s home country for medical care should not inappropriately limit diagnostic and therapeutic alternatives in the patient’s home country, or restrict treatment or referral options.
- The WMA calls on governments to carefully consider all the implications of medical tourism to the healthcare system of a country by developing comprehensive, coordinated national protocols and legislation for medical tourism in consultation and cooperation with all relevant stakeholders. These protocols should assess the possibilities of each country to receive medical tourists, to agree on necessary procedures, and to prevent negative impacts to the country´s health care system.
- The WMA calls on governments and service providers to ensure that medical tourism does not negatively affect the proper use of limited health care resources or the availability of appropriate care for local residents in hosting countries. Special attention should be paid to treatments with long waiting times or involving scarce medical resources. Medical tourism must not promote unethical or illegal practices, such as organ trafficking. Authorities, including government, should be able to stop elective medical tourism where it is endangering the ability to treat the local population.
- The acceptance of medical tourists should never be allowed to distort the normal assessment of clinical need and, where appropriate, the development of waiting lists, or priority lists for treatment. Once accepted to treatment by a health care provider, medical tourists should be treated in accordance with the urgency of their medical condition. Whenever possible patients should be referred to institutions that have been approved by national authorities or accredited by appropriately recognised accreditation bodies.
Prior to travel
- Patients should be made aware that treatment practices and health care laws may be different than in their home country and that treatment is provided according to the laws and practices of the host country. Patients should be informed by the physician/service provider of their rights and legal recourse prior to travelling outside their home country for medical care, including information regarding legal recourse in case of patient injury and possible compensation mechanisms.
- The physician in the host country should establish a treatment plan, including a cost estimate and payment plan, prior to the medical tourist’s travel to the host country. In addition, the physician and the medical tourism company (if any) should collaborate in order to ensure that all arrangements are made in accordance with the patient´s medical needs. Patients should be provided with information about the potential risks of combining surgical procedures with long flights and vacation activities.
- Medical tourists should be informed that privacy laws are not the same in all countries and, in the context of the supplementary services they receive, it is possible that their medical information will be exposed to individuals who are not medical professionals (such as interpreters). If a medical tourist nonetheless decides to avail him or herself of these services, he or she should be provided with documentation specifying the services provided by non-medical practitioners (including interpreters) and an explanation as to who will have access to his or her medical information, and the medical tourist should be asked to consent to the necessary disclosure.
- All stakeholders (clinical and administrative) involved in the care of medical tourists must be made aware of their ethical obligations to protect confidentiality. Interpreters, and other administrative staff with access to health information of the medical tourist should sign confidentiality agreements.
- The medical tourist should be informed that a change in his or her clinical condition might result in a change in the cost estimate and in associated travel plans and visa requirements.
- If the treatment plan is altered because of a medical need that becomes clear after the initial plan has been established, the medical tourist should be notified of the change and why it was necessary. Consent should be obtained from the patient for any changes to the treatment plan.
- When a patient is suffering from an incurable condition, the physician in the host country shall provide the patient with accurate information about his or her medical treatment options, including the limitations of the treatment, the ability of the treatment to alter the course of the disease in an appreciable manner, to increase life expectancy and to improve the quality of life. If, after examining all the data, the physician concludes that it is not possible to improve the patient’s medical condition, the physician should advise the patient of this and discourage the patient from travelling.
- Physicians are obligated to treat every individual accepted for treatment, both local and foreigner, without discrimination. All the obligations detailed in law and international medical ethical codes apply equally to the physician in his or her encounter with medical tourists.
- Medical decisions concerning the medical tourist should be made by physicians, in cooperation with the patient, and not by non-medical personnel.
- At the discretion of the treating physicians, and where information is available and of good quality, the patient should not be required to undergo tests previously performed, unless there is a clinical need to repeat tests.
- The patient should receive information about his or her treatment in a language he or she understands. This includes the right to receive a summary of the treatment progress and termination by the treating physician and a translation of the documents, as needed.
- Agreement should be reached before treatment begins, on the transfer of test results and diagnostic images, back to the home country of the patient.
- Where possible, communication between the physicians in the host and home country should be established in order to ensure appropriate aftercare and clinical follow-up of the medical problems for which the patient was treated.
- The physician who prepares the treatment plan for the patient should confirm the diagnosis, the prognosis and the treatments that the medical tourist has received.
- The patient should receive a copy of his or her medical documents for the purpose of continuity of care and follow-up in his or her home country. Where necessary, the patient should be given a detailed list of medical instructions and recommendations for the period following his or her departure. This information should include a description of the expected recovery time and the time required before travelling back to his or her home is possible.
- Advertising for medical tourism services, whether via the internet or in any other manner, should comply with accepted principles of medical ethics and include detailed information regarding the services provided. Information should address the service provider’s areas of specialty, the physicians to whom it refers the benefits of its services, and the risks that may accompany medical tourism. Access to licensing/accreditation status of physicians and facilities and the facility’s outcomes data should be made readily available. Advertising material should note that all medical treatment carries risks and specific additional risks may apply in the context of medical tourism.
- National Medical Associations should do everything in their power to prevent improper advertising or advertising that is in violation of medical ethical principles, including advertising that contains incorrect or partial information and/or any information that is liable to mislead patients, such as overstatement of potential benefits.
- Advertising that notes the positive attributes of a specific medical treatment should also present the risks inherent in such treatment and should not guarantee treatment results or foster unrealistic expectations of benefits or treatment results.
Transparency and the prevention of conflicts of interest
- Possible conflicts of interest may be inevitable for physicians treating medical tourists, including at the behest of their employing institution. It is essential that all clinical circumstances and relationships are managed in an open and transparent manner.
- A physician shall exercise transparency and shall disclose to the medical tourist any personal, financial, professional or other conflict of interest, whether real or perceived, that may be connected to his or her treatment.
- A physician should not accept any benefit, other than remuneration for the treatment, in the context of the medical treatment, and should not offer the medical tourist nor accept from him or her any business or personal offer, as long as the physician-patient relationship exists. Where the physician is treating the medical tourist as another fee paying patient, the same rules should apply as with his/her other fee paying patients.
- A physician should ensure that any contract with a medical tourism company or medical tourist does not constitute a conflict of interest with his or her current employment, or with his or her ethical and professional obligations towards other patients.
Transparency in payment and in the physician’s fees
- A treatment plan and estimate should include a detailed report of all costs, including a breakdown of physician’s fees, such as: consultancy and surgery and additional fees the patient might incur, such as: hospital costs, surgical assistance, prosthesis (if separate), and costs for post-operative care.
- The cost estimate may be changed after the treatment plan has been given only in the event that the clinical condition of the patient has changed, or where circumstances have changed in a way that it was impossible to anticipate or prevent. If the pricing was thus changed, the patient must be informed as to the reason for the change in costs in as timely a fashion as possible.
Ethics, Foreign Patients, Guidelines, Medical Tourism
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